Canton Zug, 31.05.2021

The Zug Massacre: survivors and affected people tell their story

On 12 September, Swiss television will be showing a documentary on the Zug Massacre, which took place 20 years ago . The producer originates from Aegeri, and was working for the "Zuger Zeitung" on the day of the tragic event.

The 27th of September 2001 will certainly take place in the yet unwritten history of the canton of Zug. On that day, a Thursday, a 57-year-old man murdered 13 government and cantonal councillors in the Cantonal Council Hall of the Zug government building. The gunman then killed himself after his act of madness. The incisive event is still a vivid memory of many people in Zug today. Today' adolescents, on the other hand, can no longer relate to this worst moment in Zug's history. The event has started to fade into memory.

To counter this, Rolf Elsener (45) is producing a documentary for Swiss television about the Zug Massacre of 27 September 2001. As the long-serving journalist and former communications officer of the city of Zug explains, "With about 100 minutes of playing time, the documentation is already the right length." After the rough cut, which he arranged together with the Chur director Daniel von Aarburg (56), the sound mix will now be added. "There are many possibilities in terms of acoustics," adds director Daniel von Aarburg. It’s very important because the testimonies of the eyewitnesses and the sounds are a vital element of the documentation.

SRF producee Rolf Elsener estimates that about a third of the film about the Zug Massacre will be re-enactment. The rest of the documentation consists of the interviews with the involved contemporary witnesses and the appropriate recordings from the archives. The eyewitnesses are thereby essential for the documentation, according to the producer, "because we tell the story of the massacre from their viewpoint." The narrators of their own story include Paul Langenegger, cantonal councillors Josef Lang, Manuela Weichelt and Moritz Schmid, as well as involved police officers, pastors and media representatives.

Preparations have been going on for some time
In order to bring everything to a point in good time, Elsener started the first preparatory work a year ago. He says: "It always happens that way." They first talk to as many people as possible who can and want to explain their view of the Zug attack. During the discussions he also heard again and again, in addition to reticence, that the interviewees found what we are doing good. The interview with the now-adult children of the cantonal councillor Karl Gretener from Cham, who died in the incident, showed that they hadn’t come to terms with it for a long time.

Producer Rolf Elsener (right) and director Daniel von Aarburg in front of the government building in Zug.
Photo: Maria Schmid

In the choice of contemporary witnesses, it was also important to approach the Zug massacre from a wide range of perspectives. But not from one: that of the perpetrator. He only appears in the film as a silhouette, nor is his name mentioned. Rolf Elsener then cut the most relevant statements from this interview pool into the film, and adds: "After this process, I know precisely what I want." He wrote the screenplay from this material, in a similar manner to a script for a feature film.

Was involved on the day of the attack itself
What will certainly help the TV producer in this story, which is to be broadcast on 12 September 2021, was that Rolf Elsener himself was on duty for the "Zuger Zeitung" on the day of the tragic event: "I was working in Lucerne at the time, but as three Zug journalists were among those affected, I helped out with the coverage at the scene of the event." Nevertheless, there were still details of the assassination "that I didn't know about". He is also aware of the consequences of this act of terror for all those involved, and especially for the relatives of the victims:

"There was no return to the old life. They had to start a new one."

The authorities have brought in a number of changes in the aftermath of the Zug Massacre. For example, there is now an entrance check by the police at meetings of the cantonal council in the government building, and the Cantonal Council Hall now has two entrances. In addition, the post of Ombudsman has been created: this point of contact is intended, among other things, to mediate when an individual has been at odds with an authority.

In addition to the conversations with the contemporary witnesses, the film about the Zug Massacre also includes re-enacted scenes with actors. For the TV producer Rolf Elsener, it was important to film as much as possible in Zug: "But the audience does not see the Cantonal Council Hall." Office scenes were shot in the former Building Department of the City of Zug on the St.-Oswalds-Gasse. Even when producing a documentary with fictional moments, it’s important to shoot the re-enacted scenes as efficiently and effectively as possible. As director Daniel von Aarburg explains, these parts were completed within ten days, with the entire production of the film costing around CHF 400,000.

In the meantime, Rolf Elsener has passed another milestone for his production about the Zug Massacre: the SRF divisional management has accepted the documentary. But this doesn’t mean that Rolf Elsener now had time on his hands: "I'm already working on a new project." The SRF produces two documentaries each year on important events in Switzerland or with a strong Swiss connection. The list includes about 50 ideas - but he doesn’t want to reveal the theme of the next production yet. A little suspense is part of a documentary.